UN to examine Israel's torture record

Physicians for Human Rights claim interrogations of Palestinian patients increased by 15% in past year.

Erez Crossing Waiting 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Erez Crossing Waiting 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
There has been a 15 percent rise in the number of Palestinian patients whom Israel has interrogated and forced to provide information on Hamas or to serve as spies as a precondition to leaving Gaza for medical care, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel plans to tell the UN in Geneva on Monday. According to the NGO, the proportions of applicants interrogated at the Erez crossing to northern Gaza rose from 1.45% in January 2008 to 17% in January 2009. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel is one of at least eight NGOs that have submitted testimony to the UN Committee Against Torture, which this week is reviewing Israel's record. This year the UN is examining Israel as well as Chad, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Philippines as part of periodic reviews that it does of all nations. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev responded to the Physicians for Human Rights report, saying on Sunday it was obvious that people entering Israel from the Gaza Strip needed to be checked because of security considerations. "There are unfortunately countless examples of people who have asked to come into Israel for medical reasons, and who have been exploited by terrorists," Regev said. There has been a systematic exploitation by terrorists of medical requests. Nevertheless, Regev said, "more than 13,000 Palestinians have come into Israel from the Gaza Strip for medical treatment, and the idea that Israel makes medical treatment contingent on intelligence cooperation is ludicrous." Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Roni Leshno Yaar said Israel was scheduled to appear before the committee mid-week to answer whatever questions were necessary on the issue of torture. Israel submitted a report to the panel and last week it also provided documents that answered several dozen questions received in the interim, he said. "It is a routine appearance before one of the many UN conventions. It is not a political forum. It is a professional one. The committee is composed of a group of independent experts and there is no room for other states to interfere," he said. "I do not expect anything" out of the ordinary to happen here, Leshno Yaar added. But Physicians for Human Rights on Sunday claimed that Israeli practices violated the International Treaty Against Torture and general codes of Medical Ethics, and that the situation was worsening. Between January 2008 and March 2009, at least 438 patients had been interrogated at the Erez crossing before obtaining an exit permit to get medical treatment outside of Gaza, Physicians for Human Rights said in the report that it has given to the UN. Palestinians who head out of Erez to seek treatment in east Jerusalem, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel risked interrogations, said Hadas Ziv, who directs Physicians for Human Rights in Israel. The situation at the Rafah crossing with Egypt was different, but the procedure to leave from there was also very difficult, Ziv said. The NGO report added that at Erez, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has questioned minors, photographed patients against their will, detained patients for long periods, and harassed, accused, cursed and intimidated patients. Those who did not cooperate were refused exit permits, the report stated. According to the report, in one instance a 17-year-old cancer patient came to Erez with her mother at 9 a.m., believing that she had permission to proceed to Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. The girl was separated from her mother, her cellphone was confiscated and she had to answer questions about her uncle and her father before she was allowed to enter Israel at 5 p.m. In December, a patient was left alone in a room at Erez for 45 minutes. He had hoped to go to St. Joseph Hospital in east Jerusalem, according to the report. When the interrogator opened the door, he said, "Do you want to answer my questions now or not? If you tell me which members of your family belong to Hamas and which to Islamic Jihad, I'll let you leave Gaza for the hospital." The patient responded: "There aren't any people like that in my family." After a while, the interrogator gave up and said, "Enough. Take him and send him back to Gaza." "It is incredibly dangerous for any democratic nation when a secret agency with known inclinations toward using unorthodox methods is allowed to operate without supervision or criticism," Ziv said. Despite its complaints against Israel, Physicians for Human Rights noted that its interrogations were not the only obstacle the Gaza patients faced. Since February 2009 Hamas police have placed a checkpoint 1.5 km. south of Erez, the report stated. In some cases they prevent patients from reaching Erez and in others they warn them that they would be harmed if they proceed. In some instances, when the patients returned to Gaza, Hamas accused them of collaborating with Israel.